Early in his career, Chris Conrad, CPA, wanted to do something to set himself apart from his peers. So, when the firm where he worked asked for a volunteer to be social chairman in his department, he stepped up.
"The way I started was really low-risk, but it was something that got my name out there, and I was able to speak in front of the firm and have an audience," said Conrad, a partner in the tax practice at Smith and Howard in Atlanta. "And that allowed me to do things beyond just accounting — scheduling, budgeting — and also gave me a little ownership within the firm to do some things and run with it."
Conrad has always approached his career with a growth mindset — the idea that your talents can be developed through hard work, being strategic, and accepting the input of others. Taking on an additional role in the firm, though one not directly related to his position, gave Conrad opportunities to interact with colleagues he might not ordinarily work alongside, as well as to show managers and executive team members his skills as a leader. And he believes opportunities like those can lead to greater professional success.
In the past, CPAs could simply work for years at a firm and receive promotions. But in today's highly competitive global field, those who want to grow and move into leadership roles must demonstrate that they're willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to learn and try new things.
"At our firm we call it the 'and,'" said Conrad. "The 'and' is what really separates our future potential leaders from the rest. There are plenty of folks who come in and they're comfortable and want to do their job, and that's OK. But the people who are going to really jump ahead are the ones who have the ability to do that well, along with the 'and.'"
For those who want to cultivate their own "and," here are a few important steps to develop a growth mindset.
Start small. Making a low-risk move like volunteering for social chairman can be an easy first step in developing a growth mindset for your career, according to Tiffany Harworth, manager of talent and learning development at Smith and Howard.
"We encourage them to start small," she said. "And we have business development goals that apply to everyone from staff to partner — development is part of their core competencies."
Never stop learning. An important part of cultivating a growth mindset is taking the initiative to pursue professional development opportunities without being asked. A 2020 survey of CFOs in the United States conducted by talent solutions firm Robert Half found that 51% of respondents were pursuing development opportunities on their own during the pandemic.
"The pace of change is so great these days, you have to stay ahead of the game as a professional," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. "You have to make sure you're embracing training and a continuous learning attitude, and it's incumbent upon you as an individual — you can't wait for your employer to provide it."
McDonald suggests attending conferences and seminars that offer learning opportunities or signing up for CPE courses to stay abreast of new tax laws, regulatory changes, or other topics. Many of these sessions now occur online, making it easier to fit them into your schedule.
"Online training is so critical," he said. "Even during these times of reopening after the pandemic, there are many ways to pursue online training."
Build your network. Training is just one piece of the puzzle. Another important step toward growth is networking. Joining local accounting associations, as well as national organizations, offers not only training opportunities, but also the chance to build relationships with others in the field.
"I have recently joined the board of the Georgia Society of CPAs, and we used to have a group within the society called the Young CPAs," Conrad said. "We just had to be willing to meet once a month and have breakfast, talk to other CPAs around Atlanta, and schedule speakers. It was a fairly easy way to put something on your internal résumé to go above and beyond."
But networking doesn't have to be limited to other members of the accounting field. If you serve a specific industry, getting more involved in that industry will increase your value to clients.
"We encourage [staff] to develop additional relationships outside those in the accounting industry, being part of industry-specific groups," Harworth said. "If you want to focus on construction, we really want to see you in a construction industry group."
Create an environment for growth. Managers can help build that growth mindset in employees, too. For those in leadership positions, offering professional development opportunities and training will engage employees and arm them to be better workers.
"This upskilling of your current employee base is so important to keep them current and productive for your ever-changing workplace," McDonald said. "New technologies are being introduced all the time and collaborative tools have never been more important, so investing in your employees helps with their productivity, engagement, and retention."
Holding on-site development sessions allows workers to get face time with company management and more seasoned members of the staff to learn from their experience.
"One of the things we do is have business development courses for our people," Harworth said. "It's a safe space for them to ask questions, and it's also a space for more experienced business developers to share best practices."
For a CPA just starting out, a veteran who wants step to the next level, or a manager interested in motivating rising stars, the key to maintaining a growth mindset is to never become complacent.
"You have to get uncomfortable," Conrad said. "The minute you are like, 'Hey I've got a rhythm now, I know what I'm doing, I'm in my stride,' that's when you should feel those palpitations, because you really have to grow and develop."
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— Jennifer Bringle is a freelance writer in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.